Southland is a wonderful, gritty, in depth look at the lives of members of the LAPD. It doesn’t follow the traditional formula that most procedural dramas adhere to, rather it focuses on the work and home life of all of the characters. It has an outstanding cast, and I was so glad it got picked up by TNT after NBC dropped it. I loved The OC, so I was thrilled at the opportunity to talk to Ben McKenzie. We talked about his former OC persona Ryan Atwood, the many layers to his new character Ben Sherman, and what makes Southland so unique.
Ben is on the brink of moving on to Phase 3, and finishing his probationary period to become a full member of the LAPD. Can you talk a little bit about what that’s been like.
It’s another sort of mini milestone in his experience in the LAPD. I think it’s one of the more gratifying experiences, because everyone who joins the LAPD starts out as a P1 — phase one of their probationary period and then rises through the ranks, as far as they want to rise. But you have to go through the first three phases as a probationary officer to join the force in a full position. It’s like I don’t know — graduating from high school or something or college…or whatever your last educational thing is. You’ve now done all of the homework, and you’ve been given some responsibility, but now you’re out and you’re actually going to do it on your own, as a full member. So it’s cool, and I think it was a nice way to kind of jump in to the new season — he needs sort of one wrap around, bigger event to happen within the episodes — I think that’s kind of a cool one, because it’s kind of nicely juxtaposed at the end of that episode, I’ve just passed a test basically, and I’m celebrating a new phase of my life, where Regina King — her character — is bemoaning a loss of a chapter in her life, with her partner in the hospital. And it’s a nice juxtaposition there of one rookie who’s still a little bit got his head in the clouds, a little kind of on cloud 9 about the excitement and joy over all the possibilities, and a veteran who’s experiencing the opposite.
Absolutely. And Ben has been through quite a journey from the beginning of season 1 until now. What has that been like for you?
It’s been fantastic. I love making the show, shooting it, the actual process of filming it, being out on the streets of LA all over town, working with a fantastic crew. I’ve done a lot of my work really with Michael Cudlitz — 75 percent or more of my work is with him, and he’s really a joy to work with. And then I also like all the other stuff in addition to the shooting of it — the training, the preparation, I don’t know there’s just a lot of aspects of the show that I can relate to and the character that I can relate to. I’ve found it a rewarding experience and I hope it can keep going on.
Are you anything like your character?
Yeah, actually I think I’m quite a bit like my character. I think I’m more like Ben Sherman, than I am Ryan Atwood…far more so. I grew up in a pretty well off family. My father is a lawyer, like Ben Sherman’s father is a lawyer. My father’s a nice guy (laughs) but I grew up a nice upper middle class kind of existence, and there are aspects of Ben Sherman’s personality: his ambition and his intelligence and his work ethic that I would certainly like to aspire to (laughs) I would certainly like to believe I share with him…sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t…but I can definitely relate to him. And I can definitely relate to him seeing stuff on the street and being completely blown away by what’s happening in front of him because I didn’t grow up in Beverly Hills but I was sheltered in the same way that everyone is sheltered, from the realities of being on the street as a cop, you just don’t see this kind of stuff every day. It’s really powerful stuff. Some of it’s very sad, some of it’s very disturbing, some of it’s very inspiring–it’s the whole gamut of emotions–and some of it’s very funny.
You are best known for playing Ryan Atwood on The OC, and Ben Sherman’s a very, very different character. Are there pieces of Ryan Atwood in Ben or are they totally different and you keep them completely separate?
I’m not overly protective (laughs) of my work. I think the reality of acting, particularly acting on film or on screen in television or film, is that you’re always bringing yourself to the character. And you’re always using whatever your natural innate kind of talent and skills and/or just your personality to the part. So you know, it’s not as though I’m playing a one-legged pirate with a lisp. I always bring myself to the part and that’s the only way you can do it I think. Because particularly on our show, we’re shooting with hand-held cameras that’s maybe six inches from your face, if you’re trying to do a [English accent] performance [end English accent], you’re going to look like a freaking idiot. Just keep it natural, and keep it relaxed and stay within what feels reasonable and right to you, while still kind of pushing the boundaries and making sure that whatever your motivations are, whatever your objectives are in the scene, are being played to the fullest of their ability if that makes any sense. I don’t think you have to do a lot of high level, analytical Ben Sherman stands up straighter or walks different from playing football in 3rd grade, you know, it’s me. He’s me, and I’m him, I just happen to be a cop. I happen to have a certain history, psychological profile here, and what he did, and that’s what happened.